Thursday, December 03, 2015

American Uprising: The Untold Story Of America's Largest Slave Revolt, By Daniel Rasmussen

In January 1811, as many as 500 armed slaves walked off the cane plantations around New Orleans and moved en masse in an attempt to conquer that crucial port city.

American Uprising author Daniel Rasmussen calls this rebellion "the largest act of armed resistance against slavery in the history of the United States - and one of the defining moments in the history of New Orleans and, indeed, the nation". Two hundred years later, however, the revolt is virtually unknown and the names Kook, Quamana, Charles Deslondes, and Harry Kenner - men who risked slow torture and certain death in organizing the revolt - mean nothing to us now.

Members of the white power structure minimized the event almost immediately and, later, downplayed its implications. It has become what Rasmussen describes as "one of the most remarkable moments of historical amnesia in our national memory". In only 217 pages, Rasmussen offers a concise and necessary corrective, producing an informative, exciting account of this brief revolution, situating it in the political landscape of American expansion of the early 19th century as well as the economical system of plantation agriculture in the southern US.

Rasmussen covers a lot of ground, laying the foundation for the revolt by showing how the institution of slavery was crucial to the southern economy, how Louisiana plantations were known for their brutal conditions, and the importance of New Orleans as a port city on the Mississippi River. He cites as inspiration for the 1811 rebellion the 1791 uprising on the island of Saint Domingue, which lasted 12 years and led to the elimination of slavery and the formation of the independent nation of Haiti.

What Rasmussen calls "the greatest challenge to planter sovereignty in the history of North America" began on the rainy night of January 8, 1811. By the following morning, many white planters had received word of the slaves marching towards New Orleans and fled into the swamps. The rebellion was put down three days later by federal troops after an open-field shootout. The slaves never made it to New Orleans.

The planters held a tribunal and questioned many of the captured slaves. Many of the slaves were then killed and decapitated, with their heads nailed on pikes and their bodies left to rot along the roads and levees. The planters and government officials also minimized the scope of the revolt, dismissing it as "an act of base criminality", stripping it of its revolutionary and political meaning. The handful of historians who have bothered to look at the rebellion in subsequent years have generally accepted the government's white-washed version of events.

Rasmussen closes by looking at the western expansion of the US and slavery in the decades following the rebellion, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. Rasmussen brings the story up to the present day (his book was published in 2011). He quotes Leon Waters, who founded the Louisiana Museum of African American History (in New Orleans) and runs Hidden History Tours, as seeing the 1811 uprising as "the intellectual antecedent of the American civil rights movement". He quotes independent scholar Albert Thrasher: "This revolt stimulated a whole range of revolutionary actions among the African slaves in the USA in subsequent years."

No comments: